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Could floating farms work in the UK?

The UK has available farmland, but floating farms in ports and harbors close to urban areas could spring up in a post-Brexit landscape. Sue Lister sets out a potential framework for their development.

The work of a Dutch engineer who designed a floating dairy farm constructed in Rotterdam harbor this summer stimulated global interest in how the concept might be developed for other types of urban farming.

Peter van Wingerden designed the two-story floating platform to establish an urban farm that can provide milk for the locality, using environmental and sustainable processes. The farm uses food waste from the city and grass cuttings from sports fields and golf courses to supplement cattle feed. The cows can graze in a small field on land next to the platform.

Manure is collected by robots and used to fertilize the field, while waste water is treated, cleaned and discharged into the harbor, or reused as processed water. Van Wingerden sought private investors and bank loans to fund the $2.9 million cost of building the unit for just 40 dairy cows, with the aim of producing 800 liters of milk per day.

The benefits to urban dwellers and businesses are clear – locally sourced food, less carbon emissions from reduced transportation and circular processes to create sustainable farming.

Post Brexit, UK agriculture is heading for its biggest revolution since World War II. We have already seen the development of hydroponic vertical farming in extensive greenhouses, disused underground tunnels and air raid shelters, to grow various plants and herbs protected from the elements and chemical pesticides.

“Floating farms could well be subject to similar legal structures as large sustainable energy projects like windfarms and solar farms”

If floating platforms could be constructed for livestock farms, poultry or vegetables in the UK’s ports and harbors, how would it work?

Would it work in the UK?

Floating farms could well be subject to similar legal structures as large sustainable energy projects like windfarms and solar farms.

The 120 commercial UK ports are owned either privately (such as Bristol), or by independent statutory trust corporations (Dover and the Port of London), or local authorities (Portsmouth).

A port authority could potentially undertake the investment and construction themselves or through a joint venture with private investors and banks. The entity would then lease the structure to a farmer or through a contract farming arrangement, and split the responsibilities for regulatory matters, insurance risk, maintenance of the structure, and operational and agricultural aspects.

The project could be undertaken by a farming enterprise or agribusness financed through an investment company or bank loans, and the structure leased from the port authority along the lines of a commercial property lease or farm tenancy.

The floating structure would be subject to planning, building and safety regulations. It would need suitable access for construction traffic and farm traffic in a busy urban environment, and be subject to safety controls to anchor floating platforms in busy shipping and commercial tidal waterways. It may also need to be a flexible structure that can be extended to increase production, or altered for other uses.

In addition to taking account of the impact on the environment, as with any type of farming, such projects will be subject to environmental regulations on the control and disposal of waste, animal welfare, tagging and treatments, and arable fertilizers.

The lease term would have to be sufficiently long to enable recovery of the high capital outlay through rent or a percentage of turnover, allowing for reasonable profit margins for the farm operator. It would also be subject to repair and maintenance obligations and provisions to be able to extend, reinstate or demolish at expiry of the lease, or early termination in the case of business failure.

The costs associated with such a project may act as a prohibitive obstacle at the moment, but it is impossible to predict how Brexit will impact the UK’s food production processes and how Westminster will approach subsidies and grants

If an enterprise is able to find a financial arrangement that makes it viable, floating farms could possibly play a role in feeding the UK’s urban populations, despite the country’s extensive available rural farmland.

Sue Lister, consultant, head of agricultural and rural affairs, Thomson Snell & Passmore